The waterproof camera class has matured significantly since our last group test in 2009. Two years on, we are starting to see products that blur the line between regular compact cameras and 'traditional' rugged models even further.
That said, despite some impressive advancements in this class, like the widespread addition of GPS capabilities and improved video specification, it still feels relatively young. Because of the way in which they are designed, these cameras cannot accommodate ultra-long optical zoom lenses, for example, and the expense of making them water, temperature and shock-proof can sometimes lead to corners being cut elsewhere in the spec sheet. However, almost all of the cameras in this review improve upon the last generation of rugged compact cameras in some very significant ways.
The playing field is far from equal though. Although all of the cameras in this group are usable and capable of producing great images in certain circumstances, only a few delivered the goods no matter where and when we used them.
Image quality and video quality from the Panasonic DMC-TS3 and Sony TX10 was the most consistent of the entire test in all shooting situations. The Sony TX10 has a very slight edge in video and in some higher ISO images, but below ISO 1600 the Panasonic prevails. The Pentax WG-1 GPS, Ricoh PX, and Olympus TG-810 all produced great results in certain situations, but struggled in others, and the Fuji XP30 produced the least impressive image quality of the group.
In terms of usability, we're torn. We really enjoyed shooting with the fast, responsive Sony TX10, but unfortunately, there was no way around using the laggy, imprecise touchscreen, either when adjusting camera settings or reviewing photos and videos. In wet conditions, where the touch-sensitive screen becomes entirely useless, the TX10 becomes a point and shoot in the truest sense of the term - you simply can't interact with the camera in any other way. The DMC-TS3 on the other hand almost matches the Sony's lightning-fast responses but remains extremely simple to use, and has the most efficient quick-menu of all the cameras, making on-the-fly setting changes super easy.
Image quality: outdoors / daylight
When it comes to image quality, all of the cameras in this test face the same challenge of overcoming a layer of protective glass in front of the lens. In very broad terms, more glass means lower sharpness, and a greater risk of internal reflections, which reduces contrast. One way that manufacturers can combat this is to apply more contrast in image processing. Although something of a blunt instrument, this can work quite well. Contrasty JPEGs look punchier, sharper, and generally more attractive for most purposes. Looking at the images from these cameras, all pretty high contrast results in daylight, but even at base ISO sensitivities, the Fuji XP30 and to a lesser extent, the Olympus TG-810, suffer from aggressive processing that leads to muddy details.
The Panasonic DMC-TS3, Sony TX10, Ricoh PX, and Pentax WG-1 GPS all produce very sharp images with lots of medium to high-contrast detail, but upon close inspection, the DMC-TS3 stands out above the competition due to the amount of fine detail available throughout the frame. In terms of color and exposure, all of these cameras are capable of producing attractive, well-exposed images in optimal daylight conditions.
- Best of the bunch: Panasonic DMC-TS3
- Middle of the road: Pentax WG-1 GPS, Olympus TG810, Ricoh PX, Sony TX10
- Bottom of the class: Fuji XP30
Image quality: Low light / High ISO
Up to ISO 800, the Panasonic DMC-TS3 outperforms the other cameras in this group, with less aggressive noise reduction leaving more detail available. At ISO 1600 the Sony TX10 shows the effects of very strong noise reduction, but it is more or less even with the DMC-TS3 in terms of overall image quality. Users who do not mind a little detail smearing might actually prefer the Sony's images as in most viewing scenarios they have a bit more contrast and saturation than those from the Panasonic DMC-TS3. The Olympus TG-810 and Pentax WG-1 GPS are barely usable at ISO 1600 as there is excessive detail smearing from noise reduction across the frame, and the Fuji XP30 is basically unusable above ISO 800.
- Best of the bunch: Panasonic DMC-TS3, Sony TX10
- Middle of the road: Ricoh PX
- Bottom of the class: Olympus TG-810, Fuji FinePix XP30, Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS
Image quality / performance: Flash
With flash turned on, the Sony TX10 and Panasonic DMC-TS3 do the best job of producing accurate skin tones and even exposures. The Olympus TG-810 handles colors well, but in our testing, it exposes entirely for the subject, leaving backgrounds very dark. The Fuji XP30 meters flash-lit scenes well, but image output is disappointingly soft. The Pentax WG-1 GPS and Ricoh PX do a good job in terms of exposure, but left to their own devices they select very high ISO sensitivity settings, which means that their images suffer from the effects of noise and noise reduction.
- Best of the bunch: Sony TX10, Panasonic DMC-TS3
- Middle of the road: Olympus TG-810, Ricoh PX
- Bottom of the class: Pentax WG-1 GPS, Fuji FinePix XP30
Image quality / performance: Underwater
When shooting underwater, the Panasonic DMC-TS3 generated some of the richest colors of the cameras in this group, but this was partially due to its tendency towards slight underexposure. The Sony TX10 was the most consistent performer, with a good balance of color accuracy, saturation, and even exposure.
The Ricoh PX is the only camera we have any particular complaints about, as it chose to default to ISO 1600 and 3200 in most of our underwater shots despite the flash being turned on. This can be avoided by manually setting the ISO to 100 or 200, but we are surprised the PX doesn't opt for a lower, less noisy ISO setting when flash is fired. When flash is not required, for example in some shallow (and sunny) snorkeling scenarios or in a backyard pool, all of the cameras are capable of producing excellent results.
- Best of the bunch: Sony TX10, Panasonic DMC-TS3
- Middle of the road: Olympus TG-810, Pentax WG-1 GPS
- Bottom of the class: Ricoh PX, Fuji XP30
Winners: Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3 and Sony Cyber-shot TX10
Overall, none of the cameras in this group are disappointing, but as you'll know from looking through this review, some are definitely stronger than others in key respects. If you plan to spend a significant amount of time underwater, or in other types of adverse conditions, the Panasonic TS3 is without a doubt the strongest performer in this group. It is one of the toughest cameras in this group, but crucially, it is also one of the best. We love its chunky controls, simple menu, and excellent still and video image quality.
We have also been very impressed by the Sony Cyber-shot TX10. Although not as rugged as the TS3, in dry conditions the TX10 is a joy to use. It has the smallest body in this group, the sleekest looking design, best display, and sits alongside the TS3 in terms of image quality. In short, it's a great camera in dry conditions. Once it gets wet though, the TX10's touch-sensitive LCD screen becomes completely unusable. If your priorities are image quality, style and responsiveness, and you're not intending to take the camera into the danger zone all that often, the TX10 is definitely worth a look.